In a landmark deal signed on Friday, Taiwan and mainland China formally agreed to introduce regular direct flights and to let mainland tourists visit the island. The agreement came as a delegation from Taiwan is in Beijing for the first formal talks since 1999. Observers are reluctant to hail the talks as the beginning of a new era in the relationship across the Taiwan straits.
Chinese and Taiwanese chief negotiators sign historic deal
Regular weekend charter flights between Taiwan and mainland China will begin on July 4. There will be 36 return flights per weekend -- half will be operated by Taiwanese airlines, half by mainland Chinese airlines.
Until now, direct flights have only been permitted on major holidays. The many Taiwanese businessmen who work or live on the mainland have had to travel home via Hong Kong or other places.
Tour groups from the mainland will start visiting Taiwan for the first time on July 18. From then on, as many as 3,000 tourists will be allowed to travel to the island every day and stay for a maximum of 10 days.
On Thursday, the two negotiating sides agreed to exchange permanent representative offices -- most probably for consular services, though the details about their exact function have not been revealed.
Communication channels nothing new
Hermann Halbeisen, a German political scientist and expert on Taiwan, was not so enthusiastic about their significance: “The aim is merely to simplify tourist relations. It’s not the first time a communication channel has being established -- these communication channels have always existed, despite some tensions between Chen Shui-bian’s government and Beijing, and they were always used intensively.”
Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) angered Beijing by favouring Taiwan’s independence. But contacts had already been suspended under Chen’s predecessor Lee Teng-hui. Beijing maintains that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is a part, as does Taiwan’s current ruling party, the Kuomintang.
It is only when Kuomintang leader Ma Ying-jeou was elected president earlier this year that relations began to thaw and the China-Taiwan dialogue was resumed – a historic step.
Not all Taiwanese want improved relations with Beijing
But for Halbeisen regime change hasn’t changed everything at all: “One shouldn’t forget that the DPP still enjoys the support of over 40 percent of the electorate. So there’s still a significant part of the population which is very sceptical, at least, of these negotiations and the rapprochement between China and Taiwan that President Ma is driving forward, if it is not rejecting them outright.”
Meanwhile, China’s President Hu Jintao has said that “the long journey to better ties with Taiwan is off to a good start”. With “long journey” he probably meant the vexed status problems that will likely be much more difficult to tackle than practical matters such as travel.
Taiwan wants to be represented in UN organisations, as its negotiator mentioned to the Chinese side on Friday, but Beijing seems reluctant to be flexible in these matters.
“Just consider that China, at the same time as resuming talks with Taiwan, has increased pressure on Washington to not supply arms to Taiwan any more,” cautioned Halbeisen. “This clearly shows that we are just at the beginning of a complicated game with no clear result in sight.”
Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou is on the record as saying that his generation is unlikely to see re-unification with the mainland.